State of the Union: What would Jefferson do?Roundup
tags: Thomas Jefferson, political history, State of the Union
Karen Tumulty is a columnist for The Washington Post.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) created quite a stir Wednesday, when she said that President Trump should delay his Jan. 29 State of the Union address if the government remains shut down — or perhaps deliver it in writing. But her proposal was not as radical as it might sound. For more than a century, it was the norm for presidents to fulfill their constitutional responsibility to “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union” by sending a letter to Capitol Hill.
President Thomas Jefferson set that precedent in 1801. Not until Woodrow Wilson ventured to Capitol Hill in 1913 would a president appear before Congress in person. Historians give different reasons for Jefferson’s reluctance to give a speech in person: that he thought it made him look too much like a king, that he didn’t want to navigate the then-muddy thoroughfare of Pennsylvania Avenue, and possibly that he was just a lousy public speaker.
But Jefferson’s 1801 message to Congress was a powerful one. Near the end, Jefferson addressed a question that remains a devilish topic today: Who gets to be an American? Our third president was elected in part as a populist backlash to the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, a package of laws aimed to keep out foreigners and tamp down those who dared to speak out against the government. One of the laws increased the amount of time that immigrants would have to wait for citizenship from five years to 14 years.
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